Isaiah 53:10-11 Hebrews 4:14-16 Mark 10:35-45
In recent weeks, the double theme of discipleship and the necessary reality of suffering for the Gospel has appeared regularly. Today’s scripture texts each address this mysterious necessity yet again.
The Isaiah text is among those Suffering Servant Songs for which 2nd Isaiah is well-known. 2nd Isaiah, an anonymous prophet who ministered in the decades immediately after the end of the Babylonian Captivity (539 to maybe 520 BC??) bore the burden of persuading the grandchildren of the original Israelite captives to avail themselves of the opportunity presented them by the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great to return to, rebuild, and restore their home land, especially Jerusalem and the Temple. This was what we today call a “hard sell” because it meant that the captives would have to uproot themselves, and walk back to Judah and Israel (hundreds of miles), on foot, up-hill, and there engage the manual labor of cleaning up the ruins and rebuilding everything. They would also have to try to reconcile with their distant cousins who were the descendants of those Jews who had somehow managed to escape Babylonian capture and remain in the hills and hinterlands of Israel and Judah. So, 2nd Isaiah was trying to persuade the Babylonian Jews who had become somewhat comfortable in their exile to take up a rather severe burden. He was not well-received always. He proclaimed a message his audience did not want to hear, indeed, a message many of them rejected for a long time. His painful task he accepted out of a profound love for God, so much so that he would write of himself from God’s perspective, “through his suffering, my servant shall justify many, and their guilt he shall bear.” The Old Testament office of prophet often involved pain to the prophet himself. Everyone, especially the prophet, appreciated that. The prophet functioned as critical conscience for king and nobility, for temple priests, and for people. Thus he had the unhappy task of correcting any evil or wrong-doing in the Jewish society. A major life-change like 2nd Isaiah proposed was a corrective in that by it God intended to return the Chosen People to the land in which they could life their religious lives of holiness and gratitude to the God who had saved them repeatedly. They could not be as holy as they were intended to be by God’s design unless they restored their Temple Worship and their way of live by living the Torah (the Law of Moses) fully and prayerfully in their Holy Land.
The later Jewish Christians would appreciate Jesus, by their time already crucified and raised from the dead, as a “high priest who has passed through the heavens.” They appreciated Jesus as both sacrificial priest and sacrificial victim in Jerusalem Temple terminology. He replaced the merely human high priest of the Jerusalem Temple as both perfect priest and perfect sacrifice. His perfection is described today NOT as a high priest “who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” In other words, the Risen Jesus as high priest who understands us in our inherent and inescapable sinfulness most fully and completely, but who gave his life precisely to demonstrate what genuine love of God, neighbor, and self required. Those Jewish Christians appropriated and appreciated the text we use today from 2nd Isaiah as an inspired foretelling of just what the perfect prophet would come to look like in Jesus. 2nd Isaiah preached and ministered in the 6th Century Before Christ. Jesus the Christ fulfilled that very Torah which was put into its final form in the era of 2nd Isaiah. Because of Jesus’ self-donation and suffering even unto death, he “justified many” as 2nd Isaiah predicted. This “justification” might be better translated as “be made worthy by God of Divine mercy and love.” The Suffering Servant of Israel’s God was personified most fully by the Messiah of God, Jesus of Nazareth, in his Gospel proclamation and in his ministry of healing, forgiveness, and teaching. The Letter to the Hebrews (i.e., the Hebrew Christians) exhorted the nascent Christians as a direct consequence to Jesus’ high priestly sacrifice and ministry, to “confidently approach the throne of grace” so as to live life fully! This is the short-term Good News of the Kingdom of God. The long-term Good News is citizenship in God’s Kingdom after death. Until then, however, having and living life “to the full” (see especially John 10:10) is a most encouraging and necessary component of living the Gospel.
In today’s Gospel text from Mark, we find James and John, the Zebedee brothers, completely missing the point of Jesus’ Gospel ministry. They are completely self-absorbed and self-serving. (In Matthew’s Gospel’s parallel, it is the mother of James and John, Mrs. Zebedee, who asks Jesus for this favor, also completely missing the point of his recent Passion Predictions.) Jesus points out, yet another time, and ever more clearly, that discipleship necessitates a willingness to embrace all that comes with preaching the truth, and ministering to sinners, including suffering of all sorts, even death. Of course, the jealousy this request for preferential treatment sparked among the other ten was both disappointing and bothersome to Jesus. He instructs the Twelve about how they must not be like the leaders among the Gentiles (meaning among non-believers). To give some examples about how “their great ones make their authority over them felt” was must consider all the human ways to misuse and abuse power and authority. In our own day just as in Jesus’ day, people with power in any relationship can be abusive, both actively and passively. The most recent decade of time has revealed an increased awareness of some heinous and destructive types of sexual abuse even in the Church. But, abuse – whether physical or emotional or verbal – seems to be universal in domestic situations, in business, in government, in associations of all sorts, in schools, and the like. We are only recently as a society making ourselves increasingly responsible to be on the look out for any abusive behavior (child abuse, spouse abuse, elder abuse, drug abuse, and all the other inappropriate uses of power, wealth, position, influence, trust, etc.) and then to take proactive steps to intervene in the abusive situation. This a very complex and difficult reality, but it stems for us Christians from Jesus’ imperative that we NOT be abusive like “the leaders of the Gentiles.” So, Church leaders who’s loyalty to the institutional Church supercedes their loyalty to the safety and well-being of the Church members, risk being abusers of Church power. Persons entrusted with the money and wealth of others are at risk of mis-management of the sustenance of others. Those who treat the Earth and our natural environment careless and recklessly (everything from roadside littering to causing oil spills and toxic waste contamination) abuse the Creation entrusted to us by God. Candidates for political office who “spin” the truth, who lie, who malign, who incite fear, who manipulate, who hate segments of the population and who pit one group against another, are themselves abusive who deserve not any of our trust or confidence. The list of examples possible goes on, but you probably already understand.
We are modern disciples. We must proclaim the Gospel of Christ, the Good News of the Kingdom of God. We must do so fearlessly, if skillfully. We must help others “hear” the Gospel Message. But, we must also critique and challenge, exhort and correct, and nuance and wrestle with the complexities of life while we apply the Gospel to life. Only then can we hope to live life to the full.
So, consider yourself sometimes a Suffering Servant. Sometimes, you are the sister or brother of the great high priest who has passed through the Heavens. Sometimes, you are like the Twelve, who need desperately to hear the Gospel message themselves repeatedly. We will be saved from our selves and our fears, and the abusiveness of society to the extent that we courageously and wisely listen to and accept the Gospel message in our own lives.
We must give and spend our own lives “for the many” just as did Jesus our Savior!